GettyImages-186876202.jpg
Rawpixel/gettyimages.com

Here is something that, in every way, appears to perfectly capture the essence of a mode of problem-solving that is popularly expressed by the metaphor, "thinking outside of the box." A man in Portland, Maine, Ken Capron, wants to mitigate the crisis of homelessness in his fair city (population a mere 66,000) by buying an "old cruise ship," docking it in Portland Harbor, and creating a "floating neighborhood." The cruise ship has five decks with 100 units each. That's a total of 500 places to put unwanted humans and remove them from the streets of Portland. (The city needs 1,000 more rooms; the cruise ship would cut that in half.) You might be surprised to learn that the idea was not laughed out of City Hall. Indeed, it even impressed the mayor of Portland, Maine, Ethan Strimling.

The mayor
:
"I have no idea if it's the craziest idea I've ever heard, or the most brilliant idea I've ever heard, but what I like about it is that he's coming up with creative ways to figure out how to build housing in the city of Portland."
The mayor is under the impression that it's a truly radical solution, when in fact, it's not.

Sponsored
Monster Energy Outbreak Tour Presents SLUSHII at WaMu Theater on April 26. Tickets still available!

The Middle Ages' ship of fools, so wickedly described by late French philosopher Michel Foucault in his masterpiece Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason ("...a strange 'drunken boat' that glides along the calm rivers of the Rhineland and the Flemish canals"), makes a return in the 21st century as a ship of un-housed humans. Let's think about this for a moment. The idea is at once ridiculous for a number of reasons that are obvious and not so obvious.

The obvious is easily understood: A home is not just a cave. American humans have to get this bad idea out of their heads. A house is not natural. It is actually a cultural complex of practical use-values that each have demanding maintenance requirements. Putting the homeless in a ship without making the kind of investment that's needed to maintain them in an apartment building on the land, will be no better than throwing them into a cave.

On the other hand, the idea is not as weird as it sounds, if you have a deeper and less distorted understanding of capitalism and its peculiar evolution from the Dutch movement in the 1600s. Orthodox economics has a genealogy that begins the human story in, exactly, the cave. Capitalism, in this cultural imaginary, has evolved to solve the problems of why a cave is not more efficient. This is why the mayor of Portland is even entertaining the idea of a cruise ship. It's a place. It's got lots of caves. The shelter-necessity is met. We might be able to move on. But it is curious that the imaginary solution is a cruise ship. What this reveals very clearly is that capitalism is a culture that does not begin in a cave, but in a castle. What drives its mode of exchange are not necessities but luxuries.

I have made this point in other posts that refer to the radical economic genealogy of the important thinker Noam Yuran. In this narrative of capitalism, which is closer to the truth, it is not out of whack that a cruise ship has been proposed to solve homelessness. The survival of capitalism is not possible without the endless generation of commodities that have emulation as its elemental force. If it solely produced the things we need, it would collapse in no time.

This economic system is locked in a very bad infinity (and there are good infinities, such as the one described by Nina Simone's "Feeling Good"). Yuran's radical reading of capitalism makes possible a theory that can connect without difficulty the proposal to house homeless people on a cruise ship with what we see all over King County today: the homeless in RVs.